The relationship of congregations and agencies

recapturing the soulIn Melbourne from 2 to 4 September, an important conference titled Recapturing Our Soul will examine the question of congregation, agency and state relationships. Co-hosted by Pilgrim Theological College, the Centre for Theology and Ministry, UnitingCare Victoria/Tasmania, and the Diakoniewissenschaftliches Institut of the University of Heidelberg, a total of 16 speakers will consider the changing shaping of church’s community service provision, the theological supports for agencies, economies of funding, and advocacy.

Even the briefest of conversations with people from different parts of  the UCA reveal how contentious this conversation is. As an issue, it excites passions. One often hears expressions of frustration concerning decisions made at one administrative level effecting local relationships. Nor is it uncommon to hear the argument forwarded that congregations are dying and that witness to Jesus Christ’s own mission will be borne by agencies. The contest is much greater than one of allocating resources and organisational efficiencies. And, although we live in an atmosphere of uncertainty and now engage in a prolonged introspection, the problem is peculiar to the UCA. It goes to the heart of what we understand the church’s mission to be.

An older way of thinking about mission, but one which still holds sway at a popular level, is to divide mission as an activity into two aspects: ‘internal’ and ‘external’. Simply stated, the external mission was associated with foreign missions and consisted of sending missionaries and resources to other geographical locations. With western societies presumed to be already Christian, the internal mission focused less on conversion and more on the activities of civilisation: education (including Sunday school) and health care. Mission = schools and hospitals.

In a post-colonial world, the challenges associated with the external mission are perhaps known. Less observed are the just-as-radical challenges posed to the internal mission activities.

One might pursue this problem in a number of directions. For example, and as counter-intuitive as it may appear, mission theory now maintains that the lack of theological attention given to mission, on the one hand, and a coordinated focus on the internal life of the church, on the other, stimulated the problem of mission as colonialisation. Or, if the church focuses on itself and its own structures, the gospel it proclaims tends to be identified with its own processes and their replication.

Another line of argument turns to the notion of ‘functional differentiation’ as it appears within sociological theories of secularisation. This observes a shift whereby societies move from an early undifferentiated world view where religion and culture appear identical, to an institutionalised religious framework with religious professionals. In this process social structures become withdrawn from the religious sphere; they become fictionally differentiated. So, today we have the spheres of education, law, health, governance, and religion.

The consequence is twofold. First, education and health become separate spheres (defined precisely in this differentiation from religion) each with their own defining aims, best practices, and professional standards. With service standards becoming evermore professional, and funding itself linked to this and the array of attached legislative standards, agency work will be further distanced from the faith communities which may have birthed them.

Second, the religious sphere inhabits its own isolated area, with a correlated interest in the governing institutions and religious professionals. Though it is possible to confuse this with the historical theological question of clergy and lay, it speaks more to organisational patterns and standards of professionalism, including the institution of contract law and best practices. This can be a good thing, as is evident in Safe Church and the ongoing work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, but certain difficulties can also follow. Depending on how the church as an institution positions itself in relation to legislative frameworks, it can risk restricting its operational identity. What the church is, in other words, becomes defined according to statutes developed within other spheres. One problem related to the current context concerns the infrastructure and associated cost of these standards, while the financial base of such (congregations) shrink. We exist within a professional sphere, but struggle to maintain those services which delimit this sphere (i.e. it is difficult to support full-time ministry staff, leading to problems of recruitment and so on).

A related problem is that of connection. The old pathways by which the church related to the wider society (schools, hospitals) have become spheres of their own. The church needs to make sustained argument as to why schools and hospital should include some religious element – because the movement of differentiation itself is away from the religious.

To put this in terms of social ‘rationalisation’, within a religiously plural society, the ‘commodities’ sold by agencies of necessity vary from those sold by the church. The economic language is here deliberate simply because the human relations in question tend to be contractual, increasingly organised, consciously planned and based on instrumental values. What one believes tends not to enter the discussion (except as a potential motivating factor). More important is the confidence that the big questions are addressed first in organisational change. Incidentally, this finds expression in the desire to find community based around shared interests.

This may sound complex, but its significance can be simply stated: First, the church has become a secular institution. Our function might be religious, but our organisation follows the dictates of social secularisation. The obvious point is that theological problems will not be solved by ever greater recourse to secular doctrine.

Second, the church maintains a dilapidated understanding of mission. If mission equals schools and hospitals, and if schools and hospitals have been removed as the primary institutions of missionary connection, then what is mission? In truth we are not even asking the question. Instead, we reaffirm schools and hospitals as the primary mission, but due to the processes of functional differentiation, the problem appears as a binary: congregations or service provision?

The matter is clearly complex, but it is a significant theological contest begging for a robust discourse. I cannot promise forthright solutions, but I can encourage the conversation. So I invite you to the Recapturing our Soul conference to be held at the Centre of Theology and Ministry, in Melbourne, 2-4 September this year.

John Flett
Coordinator of Studies – Missiology
The Centre for Theology and Ministry 

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